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University of Illinois Press
Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860

Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860

by Max Grivno


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Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century landowners in the hinterlands of Baltimore, Maryland, cobbled together workforces from a diverse labor population of black and white apprentices, indentured servants, slaves, and hired workers. This book examines the intertwined lives of the poor whites, slaves, and free blacks who lived and worked in this wheat-producing region along the Mason-Dixon Line. Drawing from court records, the diaries, letters, and ledgers of farmers and small planters, and other archival sources, Max Grivno reconstructs how these poorest of southerners eked out their livings and struggled to maintain their families and their freedom in the often unforgiving rural economy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252080470
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/15/2014
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 803,134
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Max Grivno is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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Gleanings of Freedom

Free and Slave Labor along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790–1860

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03652-1

Chapter One

The Land Flows with Milk and Honey"

Agriculture and Labor in the Early Republic

Northern Maryland's landscape was inspiring. In 1776, traveler John F. D. Smyth found that "the land around Frederick-Town is heavy, strong, and rich, well calculated for wheat, with which it abounds." It was, he believed, "as pleasant a country as any in the world." To Polish nobleman Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, the counties on the Mason-Dixon Line seemed less like the heart of Baltimore's hinterlands and more like a vision of the biblical Canaan. "There is nothing more fertile than this land," he exclaimed as his stagecoach rattled toward Frederick. The fields "groan under the weight of indian corn, wheat, [and] rye," the meadows were "covered with clover," and the roads were choked with wagons hauling farmers' bounty to markets and mills in Baltimore. "In a word," the excited nobleman concluded, "the land flows with milk and honey." Both men hit the mark.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, artists working in northern Maryland captured some of its fertility, vibrancy, and wealth. In 1791, celebrated painter and museum curator Charles Willson Peale offered a glimpse of Baltimore County's bucolic splendor in his portrait of Mr. and Mrs. James Gittings and their granddaughter (figure 1). The massive canvas laid bare the intertwined roots of the planter's fortunes and of the county's prosperity. Gittings sits confidently in the foreground overlooking his Long Green plantation, whose golden fields recede gently toward the horizon. In the distance sits Gittings's flour mill, which ground his wheat for sale in Baltimore and thence to markets in Europe and the Caribbean. As if to underscore his mastery of the scene, Gittings holds several shafts of wheat, the region's most valuable staple. Artist Francis Guy also drew inspiration from Maryland. His 1805 rendering of Perry Hall, the Baltimore County seat of Harry Dorsey Gough, shows fields thick with wheat shocks tucked among rolling hills and forests (figure 2). Guy's painting is, in many ways, an homage to Gough's talents as an agriculturalist; his prizewinning bulls dominate the foreground of the tiny canvas, while Gough, seen in the distance, directs a harvest crew.

The landscapes that Peale and Guy painted were of a region in the throes of an almost unbridled economic expansion. In 1793, the French Revolution flared into a series of wars that disrupted both European agriculture and international trade. Into this void stepped the Middle Atlantic's farmers and merchants, who scrambled to supply the warring empires with American foodstuffs, especially flour. Baltimore's merchants and their competitors in other seaport cities constructed a dense web of canals and turnpikes that crisscrossed the Mason-Dixon Line and cemented growers into larger markets. Far from being worried about these developments, farmers greeted them with enthusiasm. By 1800, northern Marylanders were confidently wading deeper and deeper into the international commodity markets, waters that seemed warm, inviting, and tranquil.

But what of the workers who harvested the wheat, ground the flour, and labored on the turnpikes? We know little about these men and women. The paintings by Peale and Guy suggest a compelling and useful metaphor for their historical invisibility. In Peale's sprawling canvas, the harvesters are mere pinpricks. Guy shows farmhands cutting, raking, and binding the plantation's wheat, but individual workers remain faceless; some are black, some are white, but all are subsumed in a work meant to impress viewers with Gough's wealth. Scholars have treated rural laborers with similar indifference. This omission is in part a product of the painfully thin records these workers left behind. Rural workers are an elusive quarry; they flit through a fugitive slave advertisement or across the pages of a farm ledger, then recede into a historical fog. For example, we know nothing about "Flying Adam," a farmhand on Gideon Denison's Lion Hill plantation in Harford County, except that he was "mulatto," as evidenced by the word scrawled next to his name in Denison's account book, and that between the spring and early fall of 1795, "Flying Adam" spent five months working Denison's land, receiving a monthly wage of seven dollars. There is no information regarding his age, his family and friends, or his legal status. "Flying Adam" stopped drawing steady wages in late 1795 but seems to have remained in the neighborhood, appearing intermittently in Denison's ledger the following year, when he earned credits for cutting wood and working in the wheat harvest. It is, however, unclear how he supported himself during the remainder of 1796. Denison charged "Flying Adam" for grazing livestock and renting a plow, so we know that he owned animals and had access to a parcel of land, but the full range of his economic activities remains a mystery. In January 1797, "Flying Adam" squared his accounts and then receded into anonymity, becoming, one imagines, one of the nondescript harvesters in a landscape painting.

The poor artistic renderings of workers may be read as a metaphor for their historical obscurity, but these hazy images might be an accurate reflection of how employers viewed the working people of the Middle Atlantic. When it came to recruiting laborers, those seeking help showed a marked indifference toward the ethnicity, race, and legal status of their hands. Bosses viewed their laborers, whether bought or hired, as an interchangeable commodity. As historian Seth Rockman observes in his discussion of Baltimore's labor market, employers "calculated the virtues of some workers over others, juggled different kinds of workers within the same endeavor, and made rapid switches between types of workers when doing so seemed advantageous." The same could be said of their rural counterparts.

Farmers were remarkably promiscuous when it came to finding laborers. Workforces were often patchwork affairs stitched together from farmhands whose varied backgrounds and legal statuses defied or at least muddied the neat distinctions between slavery and freedom, black and white. During his tenure on Denison's plantation, "Flying Adam" worked alongside slaves, free blacks, and an array of artisans that included tailors, shoemakers, coopers, and distillers. Employers were constantly fiddling with the composition of the workforces. In Frederick County, planter and Revolutionary War general Otho Holland Williams spent the 1780s and 1790s groping for a workforce that was efficient and tractable and that squared with his ethnic and racial concerns. Not only were individual hands hired and fired, but Williams introduced, modified, and scrapped entire labor regimes. In 1791, he informed his manager that he intended to purchase "three or four stout men" from the next shipment of German redemptioners. They must have proved unsatisfactory, for the following spring his manager ended an appeal for additional workers by imploring, "I wish for no more of your doche [Dutch] men." Williams's discontent with indentured servants was matched by his mounting anger with his "helpless worthless sett" of tenants, whom he evicted in 1794. Despite his misgivings about slavery, Williams resolved to restructure his workforce around a resident manager who would oversee an expanded force of slaves.

The fluidity apparent in the labor arrangements of individual farms and plantations was symptomatic of larger transformations in the economy of the Middle Atlantic. The American Revolution unleashed waves of economic, legal, and political change that fundamentally altered the terrain of labor. Indentured servitude showed a renewed burst of life in the 1790s but soon became a moribund institution. While bound Europeans were becoming increasingly scarce, the number of enslaved blacks in northern Maryland soared (see table 1). Yet slavery's future was uncertain. Even as the slave population ballooned, liberalized manumission laws were fueling the explosive growth of a free black population. The clouds on slavery's horizon thickened with the passage of Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act in 1780, which placed slavery in that state on the path to extinction and made the counties north of the Mason-Dixon Line a potential haven for runaway bondsmen and -women.

The future may not have augured well for slavery, but the portents also were not promising for free labor. Political economists ranted against slavery and urged farmers to embrace the more efficient and rational system of wage labor, but employers remained wary of free labor. Hired workers were probably scarce, for the white populations of Cecil, Frederick, and Washington Counties either declined or stagnated between 1790 and 1810 (see table 1). Farmers lucky enough to find unemployed hands may have balked at the price because wages posted dramatic increases during the 1790s (see figure 3). The shortage of hired farmhands and the spike in their earnings tipped the field against their bosses. "The labourers, owing to their small numbers in proportion to those in Europe, have it in their power to prescribe their own prices, instead of submitting to those of proprietors," observed a German traveler in 1796. He was astonished to find that harvesters near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had demanded daily wages of $1.25, "a pint of Madeira wine, and a half-pint of rum a day, and received it."

Many landowners doubted whether free laborers could be brought to heel. The egalitarian impulse of the American Revolution had narrowed the legal and social gap between workers and their employers. The assertiveness—the presumptuousness—of American farmhands shocked Englishman John Parkinson, who rented a farm in Baltimore County in 1799. "It is very common," he observed, "if you step out of your house into the garden, to find a man of any description (black or white) when you come in, to have lighted his pipe and [sat] down in a chair, smoking, without apology." Those who chastised their workers were viewed as enemies "of the rights of man" and "infringer[s] of the rights which they and their fathers fought for." Workers were further emboldened by legal developments that expanded their freedoms. Throughout the nation, a series of court decisions and laws redrew the boundaries between voluntary and involuntary labor and stripped employers of older forms of compulsion—physical punishment, criminal sanction, and specific performance clauses—that had long been brandished over workers.

"A rage for Mills": Farmers and Markets in the Early republic

Commercial agriculture had deep roots along Mason and Dixon's Line. The farmers of southern Pennsylvania had begun producing surpluses for local and regional markets by the mid-1700s. Landowners in northern Maryland had taken a similar plunge into the emerging commodity markets, expanding production to meet the Continental Army's demands during the American Revolution and becoming more involved in national and international markets after independence. During the late eighteenth century, northern Maryland's farmers moved more extensively into the grain market, with Frederick County posting a 300 percent increase in wheat production between 1770 and 1800. Most of this wheat found its way to market as flour. In 1785, German immigrant Christian Boerstler observed that "much grain was planted" in Washington County and that "almost all farmers have their wheat ground into flour that is packed into barrels ... and taken to port cities." The deepening commitment to commercial agriculture manifested itself in a bifurcated market, with stagnant local demand standing in stark contrast to thriving export markets. In 1793, a Frederick editor noted that farmers in the county's more remote districts needed better access to markets because "wheat or flour does not command cash" inside the county. David Shriver concurred. Explaining why he needed to transport his wheat to Baltimore or the District of Columbia, the Frederick County farmer stated bluntly, "I can't sell it at home."

The intensification of commercial production gave rise to a thriving milling industry in rural Maryland. In 1792, Governor Thomas Johnson was astounded by Frederick County's "rage for mills," an observation seconded in 1798 by a Frederick editor who counted "upwards of 80 grist mills, busily employed in the manufacture of flour." While touring Washington County in 1806, geographer Joseph Scott found no slackening in the milling industry. Antietam Creek alone turned fourteen mills that sent "large quantities of flour" to merchants in Alexandria, Georgetown, and Baltimore. By 1810, Frederick County was home to 101 flour mills with an annual production of 84,080 barrels, while Washington County's 52 mills produced an impressive 86,250 barrels.

Although wheat was, in Governor Johnson's reckoning, "a cash article and therefore the chief that we cultivate for market," farmers' commercial activities were not confined to small grains. Joseph Scott found that Washington County's farmers distilled "large quantities of whiskey" for coastal markets. In 1810, census enumerators recorded that the county's ninety-two distilleries produced 200,043 gallons of alcohol. Landowners also continued to raise tobacco, but the extent and duration of their involvement in its culture remains unclear. Animal herding rounded out farmers' market activities. In 1792, a French traveler reported that landowners in Frederick and Washington Counties "raise much livestock, which they drive to Baltimore." In addition to marketing their own stock, farmers sold fodder to backcountry drovers who were herding cattle and swine to Baltimore and Philadelphia.


Excerpted from Gleanings of Freedom by MAX GRIVNO Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Sharpsburg, Maryland, 1803 1

1 "The Land Flows with Milk and Honey": Agriculture and Labor in the Early Republic 23

2 "A Strange Reverse of Fortune": Panic, Depression, and the Transformation of Labor 64

3 "There Are Objections to Black and White, but One Must Be Chosen": Managing Farms and Farmhands in Antebellum Maryland 91

4 "...How Much of Oursels We Owned": Finding Freedom along the Mason-Dixon Line 115

5 "Chased Out on the Slippery Ice": Rural Wage Laborers in Antebellum Maryland 152

Conclusion: Sharpsburg, Maryland, 1862 195

Notes 201

Index 257

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